The Power of a First Grade Teacher (Selma Wassermann)

So many adults can remember public school teachers who have had super-sized influence on them in elementary and secondary school classrooms. Stories of how teachers turned around an ill-behaved young child in the second grade or an algebra-hating student into young man pursuing a math major at a university are legion. Such stories resonate with teachers, parents, and policymakers since they refresh our beliefs in the power of an individual teacher making a hefty difference in the mind and heart of a child or youth.

But what about stories of teachers who have ill-effects on students? Not necessarily on their test scores or even on grades but whose non-academic collateral lessons hurt children. Along with those goose-bump renditions of teachers who made a positive difference in a child’s life are the less-told tales of teachers who squelched students. Yet those very same intimidated students turned out to be gifted teachers decades later. Here is one such story.

Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. She has been an elementary school teacher and reading specialist for many years in the New York area before earning her doctorate in education. She brought a barrelful of child-centered knowledge and skills to her graduate students—even returning to teach at an elementary school while on a sabbatical. In the late-1960s, she and her family moved to Vancouver, Canada where she became a founding faculty member at Simon Fraser University. She retired nearly two decades ago and has continued to write for Kappan, Childhood Education, and other journals. She has also become a software designer and CEO of Wrinkled Pants creating iPad apps called  the My Word Reader for children.

The following excerpt comes from her book, This Teaching Life (Teachers College Press, 2004) where she records her memories of one first grade teacher in the mid-1930s who had a profound effect on her life. *

Miss Stellwagon, my first-grade teacher was my “first teacher.” She taught me about favorites (I was not one) and about talking in class (I was one). She taught me about keeping young children at arm’s length, lest their poverty rub off on the teacher’s middle class self. She taught me that discipline meant humiliation and loss of self-esteem, which diminished you. She taught me that even if you tried to please the teacher, unexpressed standards and expectations would kill your chances of being chosen for a part in the play. She taught me that what I enjoyed most (reading) could be made excruciatingly painful, when the same story was read orally, line by line, up one row and down the other, until all meaning and pleasure were extinguished. She taught her slum children “the King’s English….” She taught us to sit still without moving, for 3 hours in the morning and 2 in the afternoon no matter what physical urges came upon you—for to move, or speak, or ask to go to the bathroom would incur a wrath that was terrifying. We waited  for spring, for the trees to bloom, for the windows of the classroom to be open, for the end of the term, for the end of Miss Stellwagon.

“And now, boys and girls, I have some very good news for you. Guess who your teacher is going to be next term?”

“Who?” we shouted in excited anticipation.

“I am,” she said, her mouth forming into that bird’s beak smile.

“Aren’t you pleased?”

“Yeesss, Miss Stellwagon,” we chanted, our hearts sinking.

Two years with Miss Stellwagon left such an imprint that I can remember it still—the smell of the room(chocolate-covered graham cracker cookies mixed with chalk dust), the bleak beige of the unadorned walls with only back-and-white alphabet cards to divert the eye, the steam coming in staccato spurts out of the vent on the radiator, the perfect handwriting on the blackboard, the door with the little window, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the outside, where real life ran counterpart to our still-life experiences.

I didn’t know it then but Miss Stellwagon’s teaching would be pivotal in my own professional development, my loathing of her so intense that I could only become her antithesis.

______________________

*Selma Wassermann has been a long-time friend. I wrote the Foreword for This Teaching Life.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Power of a First Grade Teacher (Selma Wassermann)

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